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Editor in a (60-Second) Spotlight – Rik Leemans

"Academic incentives are to write (i.e. publish) and not to read (i.e. review)"

Name: Professor Dr. Rik Leemans

University: Wageningen University

Role at university: Professor & Head of the Environmental Systems Analysis group

Journal: Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability (publishing short review articles)

Journal role: Editor-in-Chief

Average number of submissions per year: 105

Rejection rate: 9% (suggested papers are screened prior to submission)

Impact Factor: 4.658


  1. What inspired your career in science?

    When I left high school, I either wanted to be an economist or ecologist to help make the world a better place. However, my university of choice (Radboud University in The Netherlands) did not provide an economics program, so I studied ecology (and never regretted it). At the end of my studies, my main supervisor moved to Uppsala University in Sweden and he invited me to start a PhD there. That study defined my life - the academic environment in Uppsala was great and internationally-oriented and people helped each other with field work and data analysis. This started my research career to evolve as a life-long interdisciplinary learning experience. I have always thoroughly enjoyed it but I never did plan it.

  2. What is the best thing about being an editor?

    After having frequently reviewed for the journal Climatic Change, I was appointed to its editorial board. Soliciting, reviewing and improving papers was fun and became an important part of my learning experience. Since then, I sat on several editorial boards as I feel it is an important service to the research world. Almost a decade ago, when I chaired the Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP), we discussed the need for a dedicated global-change review and synthesis journal. Within a year, the first Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability (COSUST) issue was published. Currently, the journal is among the 20 most influential in environmental science. I appreciate very much to give the journal direction, to raise awareness of new sustainability issues, to stimulate inter- and transdisciplinary research and to present timely reviews.

  3. What is the worst thing about being an editor?

    Although being an editor is rewarding, it also adds to your daily workload. In particular, finding good and knowledgeable reviewers is becoming more and more difficult. Everybody seems to have less time and the academic incentives are to write (i.e. publish) and not to read (i.e. review).

  4. What is the most important attribute for being an editor?
    I only have a sample of one! It is probably determination to get something new done. I like to pioneer and explore new things and develop new approaches. When we created the opportunity for COSUST, I found it very exciting to lead this endeavour and make it a success.

  5. Where do you think your journal will be 10 years from now?

    This is not a fair question. I am almost 60 now and within a decade I will retire (maybe writing my memoirs in my last COSUST editorial). Together with the other Editors-in-Chief and the editorial board, however, we hope that the journal continues to be successful and the main publication vehicle of sustainability science.

  6. Name one item that you cannot do without in your role?

    This is an easy question. When we started COSUST easy (open) access, contributions of developing countries and many other issues were discussed as essential for success. We also discussed the possibility that ESSP would publish it as a society journal but because of the lack of experience and sheer costs, we decided against this. So the thing I couldn’t do without is the support of Elsevier with its marketing, international recognition, the Scopus database, its submission and review system, and, last but not least, the actual publisher and support staff. It is the dedicated support of Alison, Lan, Jan, Rolf and Sandra that is (was) essential to make COSUST a success. Our bi-weekly teleconferences are essential, fun and motivating.

  7. Any tips on finding reviewers?

    As I already said, this is a difficult issue. I strongly believe that we have to give more credits to our reviewers, who do an essential task in the science chain. Sending automated invitations from the Elsevier Editorial System is effective but seems to be too offensive. Before inviting a reviewer you need to have personal contact with them. I nowadays always send an email from my personal account first (or give a call). This definitely helps to reduce the review rejection rate.

  8. What is your greatest achievement (either professionally or personally)?

    That is for somebody else to judge. But personally I am most proud of having developed the “Reasons-for-Concern” Diagram for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2000. This diagram helped to motivate global government leaders to choose a 2oC climate protection target in the international climate summits of Copenhagen and Paris. (COSUST will soon publish a paper reviewing the history of this target.) The diagram has been cited over 10,000 times and obtained a nickname: the Burning Embers. Its impact is also evaluated in at least one PhD-thesis and several seminal papers.

  9. What would you be doing now if you were not Professor at Wageningen University?

    I am not sure. I like this job as it provides much freedom to further develop my (group’s) research, and to collaborate with businesses, governments and international organisations on sustainability issues. Additionally I teach, train, supervise and hope to inspire many young people at the start of their careers. These human interactions make my work very rewarding. If my career would not have developed in this direction, I would maybe be a skipper on a charter sailing yacht crossing the oceans. Now I only sail in my sparse free time but it is also a great way to experience the environment with all its heterogeneity.

  10. What is the most interesting image/photograph you have come across in your journal?

    As COSUST is a synthesis and review journal, a lot of conceptual diagrams are published and sometimes they are complex and difficult to comprehend. Recently, authors have starting using word clouds, which reflect all used words in a field or set of papers/titles. The most important words are displayed larger. The word cloud diagrams nicely illustrate the most important concepts. A recent illustrative example is from the ATREE program review.
    Bawa & Balachander, Sustainability science at ATREE: COSUST 2016, 19: 144-152 PAGE 147.

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